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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Dreaming of New Conflicts

UnknownDisquiet the Ranks
Russia's approach to foreign policy is going back in time. During his speech at a February security conference in Munich, President Vladimir Putin told his listeners that the relationship between Moscow and Washington was most stable during the 1980s. In recent days, Putin has swung the clock all the way back to the early 1960s. While speaking at a news conference following the EU-Russia summit last week, Putin declared that "from the technical point of view," the United States' plan to deploy elements of its missile defense system close to Russia's borders was comparable to the Soviet Union's decision to deploy its rockets in Cuba -- a move that precipitated the Cuban missile crisis and placed mankind on the brink of nuclear war.

Putin has been interpreting historical events rather loosely. Even if one disagrees with Washington's current political course, it would be difficult to defend Putin's rather audacious comparison of the United States' plans for a missile defense system with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's reckless brinkmanship 45 years ago in Cuba.

First, the missile defense system the United States proposes for Poland and the Czech Republic is designed to intercept enemy nuclear missiles, not to deliver a nuclear strike. Second, Khrushchev, whose intentions to deploy nuclear missiles in Cuba were held in the utmost secrecy, had little desire in the beginning of the conflict to reach an agreement with Washington.

It is surprising that Putin drew this inappropriate analogy at the exact moment when Washington was making clear steps toward finding a compromise with Moscow. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking in the Czech Republic, said the United States could delay activating the missile defense program in Eastern Europe "until there was definitive proof of the threat from Iran." Gates also offered to consider allowing Russian inspectors to tour the U.S. missile defense installations in return for Moscow's agreement on the deployment of the system. Russian officials, however, were clearly not happy about their diplomatic victory. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made the chilly, obstinate remark that there was too much idle talk in connection with the missile defense system and that Moscow had yet to receive the U.S. proposal in written form. Following an informal meeting with NATO military leaders, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov announced that the country's position regarding the missile defense system remained unchanged.

It is clear that Moscow has no desire to reach a compromise on the missile defense issue. On the contrary, the Kremlin has a vested interest in preserving an ongoing, smoldering conflict with the United States over nuclear weapons and missile defense. Putin and his inner circle are convinced that this is the only way Russia can regain its status as a superpower and stand on equal footing with the United States -- at least in the nuclear sphere. This is why Moscow is always pushing for negotiations on nuclear weapons, such as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty or the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty I. And in order to underscore the importance of such talks, the Kremlin periodically threatens to pull out of a treaty or to deploy a mysterious, miracle warhead capable of overcoming U.S. missile defense systems.

In reality, however, the nuclear factor plays an increasingly minor role in U.S.-Russian relations. And, paradoxically, its importance began to diminish after the Cuban missile crisis, when it became clear that neither side was willing to use its nuclear weapons against the other. Despite having 20 times more nuclear weapons than the Soviet Union, the United States rejected any plan involving a first strike against Moscow. In the late 1950s, Robert McNamara calculated the probable losses in the event of a Soviet first nuclear strike against the United States. After becoming defense secretary in the early 1960s, however, McNamara acknowledged that Soviet nuclear weapons were not capable of inflicting the level of damage that he had earlier estimated, and he thus ruled out any plan for a U.S. first strike.

For nuclear weapons to be an important factor in politics, there must be a real fear that the leader possessing the weapons is crazy enough to actually use them. That is why the nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea have generated such heightened concern around the world.

Putin, however, has shown -- whether he intended to or not -- that he is a rational leader. And even drawing unfounded, exaggerated historical parallels with the Cuban missile crisis can't ruin that reputation -- at least not yet.

Alexander Golts is deputy editor of the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal.